The flaw in the wording in one of the agreements could have been avoided. ADB needs to thoroughly review all legal documents, particularly those that could cause it financial or reputational harm.
The project clearly demonstrated the importance of strong and committed project sponsors to help ensure the success of a project. Telenor had the technical competence, managerial skills, and extensive telecommunications experience to run a world-class telecommunications operation in Bangladesh. Grameen Bank, for its part, had the brand recognition and distribution network to help market Grameenphone’s services in both urban and rural areas. Both companies have also observed high ethical standards. These are the types of sponsors that ADB should be looking for in future private sector projects.
If reforms include multiple sectors, it may be necessary to focus on sectors in which the probability of reforms being achieved is relatively high.
Given that submarine cable infrastructure was completely new territory for the government and local expertise was not available to advise government, the project design could have included knowledge events and other knowledge-related activities to enable Tonga, ADB, and partners to capture and transfer lessons for application in the submarine cable projects ADB subsequently pursued with the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, and Samoa. This would have maximized the project’s contributions to ADB’s ICT knowledge work and the enhancement of the PDMCs’ regional and country ICT framework and development plans. It would have also filled the gaps in institutional learning and knowledge development created by project staff changes during implementation, which would have aided continuous capacity development of the public and private ICT sectors in the country.
While the World Bank and the Pacific Regional Infrastructure Facility (PRIF) provided parallel technical assistance (TA) to strengthen Tonga’s ICT policy and regulatory environment, sector governance could have been further strengthened to enhance the project’s development impact. An independent commission could have ensured that the fundamental tariff and policy regulation framework was in place before cable installation. Follow-up training for the Ministry of Meteorology, Environment, Information, Disaster Management, Climate Change and Communications staff who trained under the World Bank and PRIF TA would have strengthened institutional capacity and helped the ministry transition into its mandated role under the Communications Act 2015 and the Communications Commission Act 2015. These action points may still be picked up in future initiatives.
As this project was being implemented, most government personnel were still new to information and communication technology (ICT) and government buildings and offices had low-quality ICT infrastructure. The project management consultant team was initially weak. The project management unit encountered frequent turnover of ICT-trained staff and as their replacements were mostly ICT novices, slowdowns and temporary suspension of e-service applications became rampant. Mobilizing champions within each implementing agency would have helped in the overall change management required by the transition to new ICT-based business processes and systems. More awareness building and training activities would have also facilitated the transition.
Nepal has no ministry to manage an information and communication technology (ICT) project in multiple sectors. The government confirmed the importance of the project by designating the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers (OPMCM)) as the executing agency. The OPMCM had the authority to manage multiple implementing agencies (IAs) and ensure sufficient financing. The IAs introduced several innovative applications under the project and rolled them out nationwide, with impressive results. However, the OPMCM initially lacked experience in executing a complex ICT project. With project implementation units in six ministries, coordination was a challenge. Unlike other projects that have large project management consultant teams, the project engaged only a few consultants in the initial years. As a result, the project encountered delays and ADB had to provide project management support. The project, however, delivered results because of the government’s consistent financial support and full ownership. In implementing a project involving several sectors and agencies, project management needs to have flexibility to adjust the scope as opportunities or challenges arise during implementation.
From both design and procurement aspects, the project was not ready for implementation when it was approved. It was inadequately designed, with implementation arrangements that depended on the execution of a series of agreements at the country and regional levels. It had a very weak procurement plan, as evidenced by the significant increase in the planned procurement packages during appraisal and the actual number of packages that materialized. Specifically, although only two packages were planned for procurement for the loan and each grant at appraisal, the Bhutan grant component ended up with supporting 25 goods packages, 1 consultancy service package, and 27 packages for equipment supply; while the Bangladesh loan supported 17 goods and supply packages and 1 consultancy service package. While prolonging the procurement process and delaying project startup, the huge number of contract awards also made implementation even more difficult for the EAs, all of which were carrying out an ADB project for the first time. The project’s unsuccessful performance rating was an obvious consequence of its failure to meet ADB project readiness filters as well as the lack of experience of the EAs in carrying out ADB-assisted projects, and this should be considered in future interventions.
In accordance with the original design, a steering committee, composed of the secretaries of this project’s executing agencies (EAs) in Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal was formed to jointly supervise and monitor overall project implementation. The steering committee was also to provide guidance to the project management units (PMUs) established within the EAs in the conduct of joint activities and in clearing draft agreements for signing by the relevant agencies. The high-level nature of the committee may have prevented it from providing focused attention to the needs of the project. Furthermore, as India did not receive funding support from the project and so did not have an EA of its own, it was left out of the ambit of the steering committee’s coordination and monitoring and oversight functions. Future regional projects can do better by creating flexible but hands-on mechanisms to perform routine monitoring and coordination of regionwide activities. Such mechanisms could also backstop country-level PMUs to ensure that regional agreements and milestones are accomplished in a timely and satisfactory manner.
The project suffered significant implementation delays due to design weaknesses. Several factors were inadequately considered, including (i) the time required to conclude the series of agreements essential for implementation; (ii) the time-sensitive nature of information and communication technology (ICT) projects; and (iii) the predominance of private sector interests in ICT. By the time the final set of agreements was signed in April 2012, the project was already outstripped by the rapid advancement of the ICT sector in the region, in terms of both technology and private sector-led arrangements for expanding cross-border internet connections. The 4.5 year-lapse between the approval by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) of project financing and the finalization of agreements and institutional arrangements was enough to obliterate the value addition of the project, with the number of fixed broadband subscriptions increasing five times and mobile cellular subscriptions three times in South Asia from 2007 to 2012. During the same period, Bangladesh and Bhutan both recorded an annual growth rate of 69% in broadband subscriptions, and in Nepal it was 84%. Future similar projects, which remain relevant for facilitating inclusive development in the most remote and rural areas of ADB’s region, should ensure the conduct of detailed market analyses during preparation. All factors that can influence implementation should be weighed in the design of projects, which should also have built-in flexibility to adapt to market changes and engage the private sector, as appropriate.
Lack of attention to country capacity and insufficient analysis are recurring lessons in small island countries. These were not well understood at the time of appraisal and led to an ambitious attempt to deliver the benefits of SchoolNet to all secondary schools. Project teams should do better in incorporating these lessons in the design of future projects.
The Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture’s earlier decision to focus the project on the last two years of secondary school, before students enter higher education or the workforce, assumed that students were educated to that level and that those students needed more resources to prepare for the next stage. In reality, at least half of those students are classified as beginning learners. Better scaffolding of the e-resources earlier on in high school, made possible by the decision taken during the project inception mission to cover the entire secondary school, allowed the students to utilize the resources better.